Friday, 4 April 2014

Rise of the Rus

Having visited the excellent Viking exhibition at the British Museum last week, I thought I would write a post on the Rus, whose activities received an overdue focus in the exhibition which featured many artefacts from their stomping grounds. As the opening quote shows, they are a familiar lot.
The Rus on the rampage

There was an invasion of the barbarian Rus, a people, as everyone knows who are brutal and crude and bear no remnant of love for humankind. They have savage customs and are inhuman in their deeds, displaying bloodthirstiness in their very appearance. They rejoice in slaughter more than in any other thing that people naturally enjoy. This nation, destructive both in deed and name, began their brutal outrage from the Propontis and then spread up the coast. They came as far as the native city of the saint and cut down unsparingly people of both sexes and every generation. They did not pity the old or overlook the young but rather raised their bloodthirsty hands equally against all and hastened to bring destruction with as much force as possible.

So says the Life of St George of Amastris (pictured below) in recording what could be the earliest reference to a raid by the Rus upon the territory of Byzantium early in the Ninth Century AD. Its author gave these Vikings who had made their way down the River Dnieper into the Black Sea to raid the communities on its shores, about as good a write up as they received from the monkish chroniclers who had recorded the 793 raid on Lindesfarne  in very similar language. Amastris, we are told, was saved by a miracle, for when the raiders tried to break into the saint’s tomb, they were struck down by the power of God and became weak and helpless.

Whilst there is considerable debate about the date of this raid on the Paphlagonian town of Amastris, it is clear that by the early Ninth Century, the people known as the Rus were viewed as a significant threat. Early in his reign emperor Theophilus took considerable steps to protect the empire’s trading interests on the northern shore of the Black Sea. Ongoing hostilities between the Byzantines and the Caliphate would ensure that the route by which luxury goods reached Constantinople from the east would shift increasingly to the Caspian Sea and thence via the great rivers of the Volga and the Don to the Black Sea. Trade with the peoples to the north would therefore grow in importance. The major power in the region between the lower reaches of the Dnieper and the Volga were the Khazars; a Turkic people who had been on good terms with the Byzantines for two centuries whilst staving off attempts at conquest from the Arabs. The Khazar Khagan had astutely adopted Judaism as his religion in order to resist efforts from both empires to convert his people and thereby place him in a position of being seen as antagonistic to one or the other. The Khazar capital of Itil at the mouth of the Volga was a trading enclave from which ships set out across the Caspian Sea to trade furs, slaves, amber, honey and wax with Abbasid merchants and return with silks and spices from as far afield as India and China as well as Persian glassware and pocketfuls of jingling silver dirhams. Heading northwards from Itil, boats could make their way up the Volga and then turn westwards, making use of smaller waterways and where necessary portage to enter the Don and then turn south for the Black Sea and the ports of the Byzantine Empire.
It was to protect this trade that Theophilus took action in 833, establishing a new province in the Crimea known as the Klimata which incorporated the previously independent city of Cherson at the mouth of the Dnieper under direct Byzantine control. A permanent force of 2000 troops was dispatched to the new province under the command of a military governor. At the same time Theophilus sent a task force of engineers and soldiers under the governor of Paphlagonia to build a new fortification close to the mouth of the Don. Known as Sarkel, the white house, this construction served to protect the Khazar controlled town of Tamatarkha which was dominated by a Jewish merchant community. It is believed that Sarkel anchored the western flank of a line of earthworks and fortifications stretching between the Volga and the Don. The scale of this undertaking clearly demonstrates the level of threat that faced by the region from the potentially aggressive newcomers to the north. The most potent threat was believed to be posed by the Rus.

Itil was home to communities of merchants including a sizable contingent of Rus, who represented the southern terminus of a commercial network stretching all the way back to Scandinavia. Approximately 200,000 silver coins have been found throughout Scandinavia dating from the Viking period. Of these around half were turned up on the island of Gotland and 40,000 of these were Abbasid dirhams. It is an eloquent illustration of the extent and importance of the trade links established by the intrepid Rus.
Rus traders resorting to portage - Olaus Magnus
The first permanent Viking presence in what is now Russia was established in the form of fortified settlements along the shores of Lake Ladoga during the mid Eighth Century. Setting out from their Swedish homeland, the first colonists came both as warriors and as traders, as the presence of both a sword and a set of scales as grave goods for the same individual testifies. They had the capacity to fight for land or plunder and to defend and keep it and to take slaves in large numbers from the native population to be sold down the river. They could however, also offer protection to the native population and they set out to put down roots and establish peaceful and profitable trade. Indeed, so welcome did the Viking presence become that in the end a legend was born that the natives, tired by ceaseless infighting, had actually invited them to come and rule over them. Such is the tale of Rurik, eldest of three Viking brothers who is credited with establishing his rule in the town of Gorodisce, known as Holmgard in the Icelandic sagas, on Lake Ilmen, near the headwaters of the Volga.
The furry critters of Russia never stood a chance - Olaus Magnus
The Primary Russian Chronicle, which was written in Kiev around 1100, dates the beginning of Rurik’s kingship to 860, but we know there was a significant political entity controlled by a Rus ‘Khagan’ established well before this date. In 838 a Rus delegation arrived in Constantinople, having made their way down the Dnieper. It has been posited that these Rus ambassadors came to seek improved trading relations with the empire following the Amastris raid. What was discussed with Theophilus is not recorded and we know of their visit from a Frankish source, the Annals of St Bertin, which records the arrival of these envoys at the court of Louis the Pious in 839 accompanying a Byzantine embassy. The Rus declared that the reason for their diversion west was that they feared ascending the Dnieper on account of the hostile natives. At this stage therefore the Rus clearly had not achieved control over the Dnieper route. Louis, who trusted Vikings not a jot, detained the envoys as spies.

The Russian Primary Chronicle credits two brothers, followers of Rurik, with the initial, seemingly peaceful conquest of the town of Kiev on the Dnieper. They are named as Askold and Dir. Having found the town conveniently leaderless due to the deaths of its previous rulers they set about restoring good governance. The situation sounds too good to be true but however it was achieved, it seems that the Rus gained a crucial strategic foothold on the Dnieper in the mid 9th Century, wresting control of Kiev from the Khazars. It was from Kiev, so the chronicle informs us, under the command of these two enterprising Vikings that the terrifying raid of 860 on Constantinople took place.

Photius dips the robe in the sea
Theophilus’ successor Michael III was away on campaign against the Abbasids and the imperial fleet was also absent from the capital when on the northern horizon there appeared a great host of sails and soon the terrorised citizens beheld the awful spectacle of a two hundred strong fleet of longships descending upon them. Swarming into the Bosphorus ‘like wasps’ as the Patriarch Photius described them, these invaders fell upon the vulnerable monasteries along the shore and on the islands in the Marmara. The Rus burned and pillaged as they saw fit; destroying everything outside of the protective walls of the capital quite unopposed. The city itself remained invulnerable however and so once all  of the easy pickings had been taken the Rus turned for home. A later legend grew up around the raid, which is preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle, in which the Patriarch Photius dipped the sacred relic of the robe of the Virgin Mary into the waters of the Golden Horn. All at once a storm blew up and scattered the ships.

Control of Kiev was consolidated by Oleg, who we are told succeeded Rurik as regent for his young son Prince Igor. Oleg moved his capital to Kiev in 880 and the kingdom of Kiev Rus would grow to eclipse the Khazars as the pre-eminent power of the region. Trade was the name of the game but the Rus were prepared to fight for their rights. In 907 Oleg led another fleet against Constantinople. The details of the attack in the Primary Russian Chronicle are irresistible if somewhat fanciful.

Oleg disembarked upon the shore, and ordered his soldiery to beach the ships. They waged war around the city, and accomplished much slaughter of the Greeks. They also destroyed many palaces and burned the churches. Of the prisoners they captured, some they beheaded, some they tortured, some they shot, and still others they cast into the sea. The Russians inflicted many other woes upon the Greeks after the usual manner of soldiers. Oleg commanded his warriors to make wheels, which they attached to the ships, and when the wind was favourable they spread the sails and bore down upon the city from the open country. When the Greeks beheld this, they were afraid, and sending messengers to Oleg, they implored him not to destroy the city, and offered to submit to such tribute as he should desire.

Oleg's shield is nailed to the walls of Constantinople

The Byzantine sources are silent on this raid although we know that Leo VI concluded a treaty with the Rus in 911. According to the RPC, under the terms Oleg agreed, Russian merchants were to be permitted to enter the city in groups of fifty and were able to stay for up to six months to trade. They were to be provided board and lodging and hot baths on demand and were able to purchase goods for their needs tax free. The Byzantine sources beg to differ and it may have been another half century before this package of trading rights was on the table after the Rus had resorted to the brutally persuasive tactic of armed raids on a few more occasions, each time negotiating a better deal in exchange for withdrawal.

In 913 similar tactics were adopted against the Caliphate. The Arab writer al-Mas'udi tells us that they entered the Don from the Black Sea with 500 ships and then made their way via the Volga to Itil and thence into the Caspian, terrorising the communities on its shores. His account once again echoes those of Anglo Saxons, Franks and Byzantines who encountered Vikings on the rampage.

The Rus spilled rivers of blood, seized women and children and property, raided and everywhere destroyed and burned. The people who lived on these shores were in turmoil, for they had never been attacked by an enemy from the sea, and their shores had only been visited by the ships of merchants and fishermen.

According to Mas'udi the Rus occupied islands in the Caspian from which they repelled an attack by the Arab forces, but when they returned upriver they were set upon by the Muslim subjects of the Khazars and put to slaughter. It would be thirty years before they attempted another expedition of this type and they settled down to peaceful trade once more.

So this was how it was to be. The Rus would be good neighbours but only on the terms that suited them, and those would be negotiated at sword point if necessary. Well what did the Arabs and Byzantines expect? The Rus were Vikings after all.

Vikings at the British Museum

Excellent article on the archaeological evidence for the early Rus

The Life of St George of Amastris

The Russian Primary Chronicle

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